Mort de Rémi Fraisse: Attention, une victime peut en cacher bien d’autres (Warning: inequalities may not be where they seem)

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Les fascistes de demain s’appelleront eux-mêmes antifascistes. Winston Churchill
Le coefficient de Gini est une mesure statistique de la dispersion d’une distribution dans une population donnée, développée par le statisticien italien Corrado Gini. Le coefficient de Gini est un nombre variant de 0 à 1, où 0 signifie l’égalité parfaite et 1 signifie l’inégalité totale. Ce coefficient est très utilisé pour mesurer l’inégalité des revenus dans un pays. (…) Les pays les plus égalitaires ont un coefficient de l’ordre de 0,2 (Danemark, Suède, Japon, République tchèque…). Les pays les plus inégalitaires au monde ont un coefficient de 0,6 (Brésil, Guatemala, Honduras…). En France, le coefficient de Gini est de 0,2891. La Chine devient un des pays les plus inégalitaires du monde avec un indice s’élevant à 0.61 en 2010 selon le Centre d’enquête et de recherche sur les revenus des ménages (institut dépendant de la banque centrale chinoise). Le coefficient de Gini est principalement utilisé pour mesurer l’inégalité de revenu, mais peut aussi servir à mesurer l’inégalité de richesse ou de patrimoine. Le coefficient de Gini en économie est souvent combiné avec d’autres données. Se situant dans le cadre de l’étude des inégalités, il va de pair avec la politique. Ses liens avec l’indicateur démocratique (élaboré par des chercheurs, entre -2.5 au pire et +2.5 au mieux) sont réels mais pas automatiques. Wikipedia
The trend of modern times appears to indicate that citizens of democracies are willing heedlessly to surrender their freedoms to purchase social equality (along with economic security), apparently oblivious of the consequences. And the consequences are that their ability to hold on to and use what they earn and own, to hire and fire at will, to enter freely into contracts, and even to speak their mind is steadily being eroded by governments bent on redistributing private assets and subordinating individual rights to group rights. The entire concept of the welfare state as it has evolved in the second half of the twentieth century is incompatible with individual liberty, for it allows various groups with common needs to combine and claim the right to satisfy them at the expense of society at large, in the process steadily enhancing the power of the state which acts on their behalf.  Richard Pipes (“Property and Freedom”, 2000)
It was one of the fastest decimations of an animal population in world history—and it had happened almost entirely in secret. The Soviet Union was a party to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, a 1946 treaty that limited countries to a set quota of whales each year. By the time a ban on commercial whaling went into effect, in 1986, the Soviets had reported killing a total of 2,710 humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere. In fact, the country’s fleets had killed nearly 18 times that many, along with thousands of unreported whales of other species. It had been an elaborate and audacious deception: Soviet captains had disguised ships, tampered with scientific data, and misled international authorities for decades. In the estimation of the marine biologists Yulia Ivashchenko, Phillip Clapham, and Robert Brownell, it was “arguably one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.” It was also a perplexing one. Environmental crimes are, generally speaking, the most rational of crimes. The upsides are obvious: Fortunes have been made selling contraband rhino horns and mahogany or helping toxic waste disappear, and the risks are minimal—poaching, illegal logging, and dumping are penalized only weakly in most countries, when they’re penalized at all. The Soviet whale slaughter followed no such logic. Unlike Norway and Japan, the other major whaling nations of the era, the Soviet Union had little real demand for whale products. Once the blubber was cut away for conversion into oil, the rest of the animal, as often as not, was left in the sea to rot or was thrown into a furnace and reduced to bone meal—a low-value material used for agricultural fertilizer, made from the few animal byproducts that slaughterhouses and fish canneries can’t put to more profitable use. Charles Homans
A l’image d’Astérix défendant un petit bout périphérique de Bretagne face à un immense empire, les opposants au barrage de Sivens semblent mener une résistance dérisoire à une énorme machine bulldozerisante qui ravage la planète animée par la soif effrénée du gain. Ils luttent pour garder un territoire vivant, empêcher la machine d’installer l’agriculture industrialisée du maïs, conserver leur terroir, leur zone boisée, sauver une oasis alors que se déchaîne la désertification monoculturelle avec ses engrais tueurs de sols, tueurs de vie, où plus un ver de terre ne se tortille ou plus un oiseau ne chante. Cette machine croit détruire un passé arriéré, elle détruit par contre une alternative humaine d’avenir. Elle a détruit la paysannerie, l’exploitation fermière à dimension humaine. Elle veut répandre partout l’agriculture et l’élevage à grande échelle. Elle veut empêcher l’agro-écologie pionnière. Elle a la bénédiction de l’Etat, du gouvernement, de la classe politique. Elle ne sait pas que l’agro-écologie crée les premiers bourgeons d’un futur social qui veut naître, elle ne sait pas que les « écolos » défendent le « vouloir vivre ensemble ». Elle ne sait pas que les îlots de résistance sont des îlots d’espérance. Les tenants de l’économie libérale, de l’entreprise über alles, de la compétitivité, de l’hyper-rentabilité, se croient réalistes alors que le calcul qui est leur instrument de connaissance les aveugle sur les vraies et incalculables réalités des vies humaines, joie, peine, bonheur, malheur, amour et amitié. Le caractère abstrait, anonyme et anonymisant de cette machine énorme, lourdement armée pour défendre son barrage, a déclenché le meurtre d’un jeune homme bien concret, bien pacifique, animé par le respect de la vie et l’aspiration à une autre vie.  A part les violents se disant anarchistes, enragés et inconscients saboteurs, les protestataires, habitants locaux et écologistes venus de diverses régions de France, étaient, en résistant à l’énorme machine, les porteurs et porteuses d’un nouvel avenir. Le problème du barrage de Sivens est apparemment mineur, local. Mais par l’entêtement à vouloir imposer ce barrage sans tenir compte des réserves et critiques, par l’entêtement de l’Etat à vouloir le défendre par ses forces armées, allant jusqu’à utiliser les grenades, par l’entêtement des opposants de la cause du barrage dans une petite vallée d’une petite région, la guerre du barrage de Sivens est devenue le symbole et le microcosme de la vraie guerre de civilisation qui se mène dans le pays et plus largement sur la planète. (…) Pire, il a fait silence officiel embarrassé sur la mort d’un jeune homme de 21 ans, amoureux de la vie, communiste candide, solidaire des victimes de la terrible machine, venu en témoin et non en combattant. Quoi, pas une émotion, pas un désarroi ? Il faut attendre une semaine l’oraison funèbre du président de la République pour lui laisser choisir des mots bien mesurés et équilibrés alors que la force de la machine est démesurée et que la situation est déséquilibrée en défaveur des lésés et des victimes. Ce ne sont pas les lancers de pavés et les ­vitres brisées qui exprimeront la cause non violente de la civilisation écologisée dont la mort de Rémi Fraisse est devenue le ­symbole, l’emblème et le martyre. C’est avec une grande prise de conscience, capable de relier toutes les initiatives alternatives au productivisme aveugle, qu’un véritable hommage peut être rendu à Rémi Fraisse. Edgar Morin
Est-ce que ces policiers se sont cantonnés à se déguiser en casseur ou est-ce qu’ils sont allés un peu plus loin ? Olivier Besancenot
Mais les policiers pris dans la tourmente ont un argument de poids. Preuve à l’appui, ils expliquent que les manifestants n’hésitent plus à publier les photos de leurs visages sur des sites « anti-flics » et que se masquer est le seul moyen pour eux de ne pas être identifiés. RTL
Depuis début septembre, les heurts entre forces de l’ordre et zadistes ont été particulièrement violents, au point que 56 policiers et gendarmes ont été blessés. La préfecture du Tarn a tenu plusieurs réunions avec les organisateurs de la manifestation dans un esprit de calme et, parallèlement, le ministre de l’Intérieur n’a cessé de donner des consignes d’apaisement. Malgré cela, nous avons très vite compris qu’une frange radicale de casseurs viendrait se mêler aux manifestants pacifiques. (…) Le préfet du Tarn, qui détient l’autorité publique, a fait appel aux forces de gendarmerie car il y avait des risques d’affrontement avec des contre-manifestants favorables au barrage. Il y avait aussi la crainte de voir des casseurs se rendre dans la ville proche de Gaillac. Enfin il fallait éviter le « piégeage » du site qui aurait compromis la reprise des travaux. (…) Ces munitions ne peuvent être utilisées que dans deux situations : soit à la suite de violences à l’encontre des forces de l’ordre, soit pour défendre la zone liée à la mission confiée aux gendarmes. Il faut que le chef du dispositif donne son aval à son utilisation, et celui-ci a donné l’ordre en raison des menaces qui pesaient sur les effectifs. Le tireur est un gradé et agit sur ordre de son commandant, après que les sommations d’usage ont été faites. Donc, je maintiens qu’il n’y a pas eu de faute de la part du gradé qui a lancé cette grenade.(…) Entre minuit et 3 heures du matin, ce sont 23 grenades qui ont été lancées. Environ 400 le sont tous les ans, c’est dire que les affrontements ont été particulièrement violents. J’ai vu des officiers, présents dans la gendarmerie depuis trente ans, qui m’ont dit ne jamais avoir vu un tel niveau de violence. Nous sommes face à des gens qui étaient présents pour « casser » du gendarme. Général Denis Favier (directeur général de la gendarmerie nationale)
Tanzania … with a relatively low Gini of 35 may be less egalitarian than it appears since measured inequality lies so close to (or indeed above) its inequality possibility frontier. … On the other hand, with a much higher Gini of almost 48, Malaysia … has extracted only about one-half of maximum inequality, and thus is farther away from the IPF. (…)  As a country becomes richer, its feasible inequality expands. Consequently, if recorded inequality is stable, the inequality extraction ratio must fall; and even if recorded inequality goes up, the ratio may not. Branko Milanovic
Branko Milanovic, Peter H. Lindert, Jeffrey G. Williamson (…) develop two new interesting concepts: the inequality possibility frontier, which sets the limit of possible inequality, and the extraction ratio, the ratio between the feasible maximum and the actual level of inequality. The idea in a nutshell is that the higher a society’s mean income, the more there is for the ruling class possibly to take. So how much of that have they actually been taking historically, and how does it differ from today?  Amidst a great deal of interesting discussion of the problems inherent in estimating incomes and their distribution in ye olden times, Messrs Milanovic, Lindert, and Williamson find that the extraction ratio in pre-industrial societies of yore were much higher than in pre-industrial nations today, although their actual levels of inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) are very similar. A really, really poor country may have a low level of actual inequality, since even the rich have so little. But they may have nevetheless taken all they can get from the less powerful. A richer and nominally less equal place may also be rather less bandit-like; the powerful could hoard more, but they don’t. Because potential and actual inequality come apart, measured actual inequality may therefore tell us less than we think. The Economist
Marx and Engels were pretty good economic reporters. Surveying the economic history literature, Milanovic finds that between 1800 and 1849, the wage of an unskilled laborer in India, one of the poorest countries at the time, was 30 percent that of an equivalent worker in England, one of the richest. Here is another data point: in the 1820s, real wages in the Netherlands were just 70 percent higher than those in the Yangtze Valley in China. But Marx and Engels did not do as well as economic forecasters. They predicted that oppression of the proletariat would get worse, creating an international – and internationally exploited – working class. Instead, Milanovic shows that over the subsequent century and a half, industrial capitalism hugely enriched the workers in the countries where it flourished – and widened the gap between them and workers in those parts of the world where it did not take hold. One way to understand what has happened, Milanovic says, is to use a measure of global inequality developed by François Bourguignon and Christian Morrisson in a 2002 paper. They calculated the global Gini coefficient, a popular measure of inequality, to have been 53 in 1850, with roughly half due to location – or inequality between countries – and half due to class. By Milanovic’s calculation, the global Gini coefficient had risen to 65.4 by 2005. The striking change, though, is in its composition: 85 percent is due to location, and just 15 percent due to class. Comparable wages in developed and developing countries are another way to illustrate the gap. Milanovic uses the 2009 global prices and earnings report compiled by UBS, the Swiss bank. This showed that the nominal after-tax wage for a building laborer in New York was $16.60 an hour, compared with 80 cents in Beijing, 60 cents in Nairobi and 50 cents in New Delhi, a gap that is orders of magnitude greater than the one in the 19th century. Interestingly, at a time when unskilled workers are the ones we worry are getting the rawest deal, the difference in earnings between New York engineers and their developing world counterparts is much smaller: engineers earn $26.50 an hour in New York, $5.80 in Beijing, $4 in Nairobi and $2.90 in New Delhi. Milanovic has two important takeaways from all of this. The first is that in the past century and a half, « the specter of communism » in the Western world « was exorcised » because industrial capitalism did such a good job of enriching the erstwhile proletariat. His second conclusion is that the big cleavage in the world today is not between classes within countries, but between the rich West and the poor developing world. As a result, he predicts « huge migratory pressures because people can increase their incomes several-fold if they migrate. » I wonder, though, if the disparity Milanovic documents is already creating a different shift in the global economy. Thanks to new communications and transportation technologies, and the opening up of the world economy, immigration is not the only way to match cheap workers from developing economies with better-paid jobs in the developing world. Another way to do it is to move jobs to where workers live. Economists are not the only ones who can read the UBS research – business people do, too. And some of them are concluding, as one hedge fund manager said at a recent dinner speech in New York, that « the low-skilled American worker is the most overpaid worker in the world. » At a time when Western capitalism is huffing and wheezing, Milanovic’s paper is a vivid reminder of how much it has accomplished. But he also highlights the big new challenge – how to bring the rewards of capitalism to the workers of the developing world at a time when the standard of living of their Western counterparts has stalled. Chrystia Freeland
At a very basic, agrarian level of development, Milanovic explains, people’s incomes are relatively equal; everyone is living at or close to subsistence level. But as more advanced technologies become available and enable workers to differentiate their skills, a gulf between rich and poor becomes possible. This section also gingerly approaches the contentious debate over whether inequality is good or bad for economic growth, but ultimately quibbles with the question itself. “There is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ inequality,” Milanovic writes, “just as there is good and bad cholesterol.” The possibility of unequal economic outcomes motivates people to work harder, he argues, although at some point it can lead to the preservation of acquired positions, which causes economies to stagnate. In his second and third essays, Milanovic switches to his obvious passion: inequality around the world. These sections encourage readers to better appreciate their own living standards and to think more skeptically about who is responsible for their success. As Milanovic notes, an astounding 60 percent of a person’s income is determined merely by where she was born (and an additional 20 percent is dictated by how rich her parents were). He also makes interesting international comparisons. The typical person in the top 5 percent of the Indian population, for example, makes the same as or less than the typical person in the bottom 5 percent of the American population. That’s right: America’s poorest are, on average, richer than India’s richest — extravagant Mumbai mansions notwithstanding. It is no wonder then, Milanovic says, that so many from the third world risk life and limb to sneak into the first. A recent World Bank survey suggested that “countries that have done economically poorly would, if free migration were allowed, remain perhaps without half or more of their populations.” Catherine Rampell
Considérez le mouvement actuel des indignados, le mouvement des (comme le slogan le dit) « 99% contre le 1% ». Mais si l’on demande où, dans la distribution du revenu mondiale, se trouvent ces « 99% » qui manifestent dans les pays riches, nous trouvons qu’ils sont dans la position supérieure de la distribution du revenu mondiale, disons, autour du 80e percentile. En d’autres mots, ils sont plus riches que les 4/5e des individus vivant dans le monde. Ceci étant, ce n’est pas un argument pour dire qu’ils ne devraient pas manifester, mais ce fait empirique soulève immédiatement la question suivante, celle dont traitent les philosophes politiques. Supposons, pas tout à fait de manière irréaliste, que la mondialisation marche de telle façon qu’elle augmente les revenus de certains parmi ces « autres » 4/5e de l’humanité, ceux vivant en Chine, en Inde, en Afrique, et qu’elle réduit les revenus de ceux qui manifestent dans les rues des pays riches. Que devrait être la réponse à cela ? Devrions-nous considérer ce qui est meilleur pour le monde dans son entièreté, et dire ainsi à ces « 99% » : « vous autres, vous êtes déjà riches selon les standards mondiaux, laissez maintenant quelques autres, qui sont prêts à faire votre travail pour une fraction de l’argent que vous demandez, le faire, et améliorer ce faisant leur sort d’un rien, gagner un accès à l’eau potable ou donner naissance sans danger, par exemple, des choses que vous avez déjà et tenez pour acquises ». Ou bien, devrions-nous dire au contraire que la redistribution doit d’abord avoir lieu dans chaque pays individuellement, c’est-à-dire que l’on redistribue l’argent depuis le 1% le plus riche vers les autres 99% dans le même pays, et, seulement une fois cela accompli, pourrions-nous commencer à envisager ce qui devrait se faire à l’échelle mondiale ? Un optimum global serait ainsi atteint quand chaque pays prendrait soin de lui-même au mieux en premier lieu. Cette dernière position, où l’optimum global n’existe pas en tant que tel mais est le « produit » des optimums nationaux, est la position de John Rawls. La précédente, qui considère l’intérêt de tous sans se préoccuper des pays individuellement, est celle de philosophes politiques plus radicaux. Mais, comme on le voit, prendre une position ou l’autre a des conséquences très différentes sur notre attitude envers la mondialisation ou les revendications des mouvements comme les indignados ou Occupy Wall Street.
Nous sommes souvent pessimistes ou même cyniques quant à la capacité des politiciens d’offrir du changement. Mais notez que cette capacité, en démocratie, dépend de ce que la population veut. Aussi, peut-être devrions-nous nous tourner davantage vers nous-mêmes que vers les politiciens pour comprendre pourquoi changer le modèle économique actuel est si difficile. Malgré plusieurs effets négatifs du néolibéralisme (que j’ai mentionnés plus haut), un large segment de la population en a bénéficié, et même certains parmi ceux qui n’y ont pas gagné « objectivement » ont totalement internalisé ses valeurs. Il semble que nous voulions tous une maison achetée sans acompte, nous achetons une deuxième voiture si nous obtenons un crédit pas cher, nous avons des factures sur nos cartes de crédit bien au-delà de nos moyens, nous ne voulons pas d’augmentation des prix de l’essence, nous voulons voyager en avion même si cela génère de la pollution, nous mettons en route la climatisation dès qu’il fait plus de vingt-cinq degrés, nous voulons voir tous les derniers films et DVDs, nous avons plusieurs postes de télévision dernier cri, etc. Nous nous plaignons souvent d’un emploi précaire mais nous ne voulons renoncer à aucun des bénéfices, réels ou faux, qui dérivent de l’approche Reagan/Thatcher de l’économie. Quand une majorité suffisante de personnes aura un sentiment différent, je suis sûr qu’il y aura des politiciens qui le comprendront, et gagneront des élections avec ce nouveau programme (pro-égalité), et le mettront même en œuvre. Les politiciens sont simplement des entrepreneurs : si des gens veulent une certaine politique, ils l’offriront, de la même manière qu’un établissement vous proposera un café gourmet pourvu qu’un nombre suffisant parmi nous le veuille et soit prêt à payer pour cela.
L’inégalité globale, l’inégalité entre les citoyens du monde, est à un niveau très élevé depuis vingt ans. Ce niveau est le plus élevé, ou presque, de l’histoire : après la révolution industrielle, certaines classes, et puis certaines nations, sont devenues riches et les autres sont restées pauvres. Cela a élevé l’inégalité globale de 1820 à environ 1970-80. Après cela, elle est restée sans tendance claire, mais à ce niveau élevé. Mais depuis les dix dernières années, grâce aux taux de croissance importants en Chine et en Inde, il se peut que nous commencions à voir un déclin de l’inégalité globale. Si ces tendances se poursuivent sur les vingt ou trente prochaines années, l’inégalité globale pourrait baisser substantiellement. Mais l’on ne devrait pas oublier que cela dépend crucialement de ce qui se passe en Chine, et que d’autres pays pauvres et populeux comme le Nigeria, le Bangladesh, les Philippines, le Soudan, etc., n’ont pas eu beaucoup de croissance économique. Avec la croissance de leur population, il se peut qu’ils poussent l’inégalité globale vers le haut. D’un autre côté, le monde est plus riche aujourd’hui qu’à n’importe quel autre moment dans l’histoire. Il n’y a aucun doute sur ce point. Le 20e siècle a été justement appelé par [l’historien britannique] Eric Hosbawm « le siècle des extrêmes » : jamais des progrès aussi importants n’avaient été réalisés auparavant pour autant de monde, et jamais autant de monde n’avait été tué et exterminé par des idéologies extrêmes. Le défi du 21e siècle est de mettre fin à ce dernier point. Mais les développements de la première décennie de ce siècle n’ont pas produit beaucoup de raisons d’être optimiste.
Il y a trois moyens pour s’y prendre. Le premier est une plus grande redistribution du monde riche vers le monde pauvre. Mais l’on peut aisément écarter ce chemin. L’aide au développement officielle totale est un peu au-dessus de 100 milliards de dollars par an, ce qui est à peu près équivalent à la somme payée en bonus pour les « bonnes performances » par Goldman Sachs depuis le début de la crise. De telles sommes ne seront pas une solution à la pauvreté mondiale ou à l’inégalité globale, et de plus, ces fonds vont diminuer dans la mesure où le monde riche a du mal à s’extraire de la crise. La deuxième manière consiste à accélérer la croissance dans les pays pauvres, et l’Afrique en particulier. C’est en fait la meilleure façon de s’attaquer à la pauvreté et à l’inégalité tout à la fois. Mais c’est plus facile à dire qu’à faire. Même si la dernière décennie a été bonne généralement pour l’Afrique, le bilan global pour l’ère post-indépendance est mauvais, et dans certains cas, catastrophiquement mauvais. Ceci étant, je ne suis pas tout à fait pessimiste. L’Afrique sub-saharienne a commencé à mettre de l’ordre dans certains de ses problèmes, et pourrait continuer à avoir des taux de croissance relativement élevés. Cependant, le fossé entre les revenus moyens d’Afrique et d’Europe est désormais si profond, qu’il faudrait quelques centaines d’années pour l’entamer significativement. Ce qui nous laisse une troisième solution pour réduire les disparités globales : la migration. En principe, ça n’est pas différent du fait d’accélérer la croissance du revenu dans un quelconque pays pauvre. La seule différence – mais politiquement c’est une différence significative – est qu’une personne pauvre améliore son sort en déménageant ailleurs plutôt qu’en restant là où elle est née. La migration est certainement l’outil le plus efficace pour la réduction de l’inégalité globale. Ouvrir les frontières de l’Europe et des États-Unis permettrait d’attirer des millions de migrants et leurs niveaux de vie s’élèveraient. On voit cela tous les jours à une moindre échelle, mais on l’a vu également à la fin du 19e siècle et au début du 20e siècle, quand les migrations étaient deux à cinq fois supérieures (en proportion de la population d’alors) à aujourd’hui. La plupart de ceux qui migraient augmentaient leurs revenus. Cependant il y a deux problèmes importants avec la migration. Premièrement, cela mènerait à des revenus plus bas pour certaines personnes vivant dans les pays d’accueil, et elles utiliseraient (comme elles le font actuellement) tous les moyens politiques pour l’arrêter. Deuxièmement, cela crée parfois un « clash des civilisations » inconfortable quand des normes culturelles différentes se heurtent les unes aux autres. Cela produit un retour de bâton, qui est évident aujourd’hui en Europe. C’est une réaction compréhensible, même si beaucoup d’Européens devraient peut-être réfléchir à l’époque où ils émigraient, que ce soit de manière pacifique ou de manière violente, vers le reste du monde, et combien ils y trouvaient des avantages. Il semble maintenant que la boucle soit bouclée : les autres émigrent vers l’Europe. Branko Milanovic

Attention: une victime peut en cacher bien d’autres !

En ce 97e anniversaire du coup d’Etat bolchévique qui lança une révolution et les flots de sang dont on attend toujours le Nuremberg

Et où, à l’occasion du décès accidentel d’un jeune militant écologiste contestant la construction d’un barrage dans le Tarn, nos zélotes de la philosophie la plus criminelle de l’histoire viennent jeter de l’huile sur le feu avec leurs insinuations conspirationnistes contre les forces de l’ordre

Pendant que nos philosophes auto-proclamés dénoncent la « guerre de civilisation » libérale qui aurait déclenché le « meurtre » (sic) d’un jeune « amoureux de la vie, communiste candide, solidaire des victimes de la terrible machine » …

Et que, dans nos écoles, pour défendre le droit des casseurs à attaquer la police à coup de cocktails molotov ou tout autre projectile potentiellement mortel,  des agents provocateurs issus du même mouvement criminel prennent en otage les études de nos enfants  …

Comment ne pas voir avec l’économiste serbo-américain Branko Milanovic …

Et derrière les indignations sélectives de nos enfants gâtés de Wall Street ou des plaines du Tarn …

Les véritables victimes de la mise au ban proposée …

D’un modèle capitaliste qui avec toutes ses tares n’a jamais sorti autant de monde de la pauvreté ?

Le Gini hors de la bouteille. Entretien avec Branko Milanovic
Branko Milanovic
Niels Planel
Sens public
23 novembre 2011

Résumé : Branko Milanovic compte sans doute parmi les spécialistes des inégalités les plus importants sur la scène internationale. Économiste à la Banque mondiale, il se penche sur les questions des disparités depuis plusieurs décennies. Dans son livre paru cette année, The Haves and the Have-Nots (Les nantis et les indigents), il réussit le tour de force de rendre accessibles au plus grand nombre des idées complexes sur les inégalités entre les individus, entre les pays, et entre les citoyens du monde dans un style attrayant. Pour ce faire, l’auteur illustre ses propos au travers de petites histoires (des « vignettes ») audacieuses et d’une incroyable originalité, dans lesquelles il répond à des questions fascinantes : les Romains prospères étaient-ils comparativement plus riches que les super riches d’aujourd’hui ? Dans quel arrondissement de Paris valait-il mieux vivre au 13e siècle, et qu’en est-il aujourd’hui ? Sur l’échelle de la redistribution du revenu au Kenya, où se situait le grand-père de Barack Obama ? Est-ce que le lieu de naissance influence le salaire que vous aurez au long d’une vie, et si oui, comment ? Qu’a gagné Anna Karénine à tomber amoureuse ? La Chine survivra-t-elle au mitan du siècle ? Qui a été la personne la plus riche au monde ? Reprenant également les travaux de Vilfredo Pareto, Karl Marx, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Rawls ou Simon Kuznets à une époque où la question des inégalités préoccupe de plus en plus, son ouvrage fait le pari d’éclairer un enjeu aussi ancien que passionnant. Branko Milanovic a accepté de répondre aux questions de Sens Public.

Sens Public – D’où votre intérêt pour le sujet des inégalités vous vient-il ?

Branco Milanovic – Depuis le lycée, et même depuis l’école élémentaire, j’étais toujours très intéressé par les enjeux sociaux. J’ai choisi l’économie précisément pour cela. C’était une science sociale et elle traitait de ce qui était probablement l’une des questions les plus importantes à l’époque : comment augmenter le revenu des gens, comment leur permettre de vivre de meilleures vies, dans de plus grands appartements, avec un accès à l’eau chaude, au chauffage, des rues mieux pavées, des trottoirs plus propres.

J’ai étudié dans ce qui était alors la Yougoslavie, qui avait un fort taux de croissance. Le bien être des gens (y compris celui de ma propre famille) augmentait chaque année ; atteindre un taux de croissance de 7-10% par an semblait presque normal. J’aimais l’économie empirique, et j’ai choisi les statistiques (dans le département d’économie). Dans les statistiques, on travaille beaucoup avec les questions de distributions. Et puis, soudainement, les deux intérêts que j’avais préservés, en l’état, dans deux compartiments séparés de mon cerveau, celui pour les enjeux sociaux, et celui pour les statistiques, se sont rejoints.

J’étais assez fasciné (j’avais alors vingt ou vingt-et-un ans), quand j’ai appris pour la première fois des choses au sujet du coefficient de Gini, Pareto ou de la distribution log-normale, et j’ai commencé à voir si les données sur les revenus que j’avais épouseraient la courbe. C’était une époque où l’on utilisait du papier et un stylo, une calculatrice à la main, pour chiffrer la taille de chaque groupe, leur part du revenu total, et pour appliquer une fonction statistique afin de voir si elle correspondait aux nombres ou non. Il me semblait que, d’une certaine manière, le secret de la façon dont l’argent est distribué parmi les individus, ou celui de la manière dont les sociétés sont organisées, apparaîtraient en face de moi. J’ai passé de nombreuses nuits à parcourir ces nombres. Je l’ai souvent préféré à aller dehors avec des amis.

S.P. – Combien de temps vous a pris l’écriture de votre livre sur l’inégalité, et où avez-vous puisé votre inspiration pour rédiger autant d’histoires aussi diverses (vos “vignettes”) ? Les économistes semblent souvent penser d’une manière très abstraite. En utilisant des exemples ancrés dans la vie quotidienne des gens (la littérature, l’histoire, etc.), quelle était votre intention ?

B.M. – Le livre a été rédigé en moins de cent jours, et cela inclut les jours où je ne pouvais pas écrire à cause d’autres choses que j’avais à faire, ou parce que je voyageais. Les meilleurs jours furent ceux où je rédigeais une, voire deux vignettes en moins de vingt-quatre heures. Ceci étant, toutes les idées pour les vignettes et les données requises existaient déjà. C’est pourquoi il m’a été possible d’écrire le livre aussi vite. C’est au cours des nombreuses années où je faisais un travail plus « sérieux » qu’une idée (qui deviendrait plus tard une « vignette ») me frappait, et je passais alors plusieurs heures ou journées à penser et calculer des choses pour lesquelles je ne voyais pas encore un moyen évident de publication. Le vrai défi a été de trouver un format qui permettrait de rassembler tous ces morceaux que j’aimais, et que les gens semblaient apprécier lorsque je les présentais à des conférences, dans un livre. Une fois que, avec l’éditeur de mon premier livre, Tim Sullivan, je parvins à la présente structure, où chaque sujet est introduit par un essai assez sérieux, assez académique, puis illustré par des vignettes, écrire le livre devint facile et vraiment plaisant. J’écris d’ordinaire facilement et rapidement et il me semble que je n’ai jamais rien écrit avec autant d’aise. Et je pense que cela se voit dans le texte.

J’ai tâché d’accomplir deux choses : prendre du plaisir en écrivant les vignettes, et montrer aux lecteurs que bien des concepts secs de l’économie n’ont pas pour sujet des « agents économiques » (comme on appelle les gens en économie), ou des « attentes rationnelles », ou des « marchés efficaces », etc., mais des personnes comme eux-mêmes, ou des personnes célèbres, ou des personnages de fiction. Et que, eux, les lecteurs, ont rarement fait cette transition, à savoir, réaliser que l’économie, et la distribution du revenu, ont vraiment pour sujet les gens, les personnes réelles : comment ils gagnent et perdent de l’argent, comment les riches influencent le processus politique, qui paye des impôts, pourquoi des pays prospèrent et déclinent, pourquoi ce sont toujours les mêmes équipes de football qui gagnent, et même comment une inégalité élevée a pu engendrer la crise actuelle. Ce sont là, je pense, des sujets qui nous concernent tous, fréquemment, au quotidien, et que les économistes rendent compliqués en utilisant un jargon impénétrable.

S.P. – En France, des écrivains comme Victor Hugo et Émile Zola ont produit une œuvre impressionnante sur les conditions sociales et les inégalités de leur époque. Et l’une des vignettes les plus fameuses de votre livre se fonde sur le roman de Tolstoï, Anna Karénine. Vous faites également référence à Orgueil et Préjugés, de Jane Austen… Est-ce que la littérature est un outil aussi efficace que l’économie pour comprendre, observer et expliquer les inégalités ? Et si oui, est-ce que la littérature est toujours une force puissante pour sensibiliser les gens aux inégalités dans le monde d’aujourd’hui, ou bien l’économie est-elle plus efficace pour cela ?

B.M. – La littérature européenne du 19e siècle, et la française en particulier, sont des trésors d’informations sur les sociétés européennes de l’époque et, de ce fait, sur la distribution du revenu. Les grands romans de cette période se préoccupaient de décrire les sociétés telles qu’elles étaient, de regarder les destins individuels dans le cadre d’ensemble de l’évolution sociale, et puisque l’argent jouait un rôle si important, les livres sont pleins de données détaillées sur les revenus, les salaires, le coût de la vie, le prix des choses, etc. C’est vrai de Victor Hugo (dont je connais moins bien les livres) mais bien sûr, également, de Zola et Balzac, ou Dickens. Je pense que la Comédie humaine de Balzac pourrait être aisément convertie en une étude empirique sur l’inégalité de revenu, et la mobilité sociale, au sein de la société française de l’époque. Balzac voyait bien sûr son œuvre comme un portrait de la société dans son ensemble. Orgueil et préjugés et Anna Karénine sont plus limités dans leur prisme (particulièrement le premier) mais ils se concentrent sur une chose qui me semble intéressante : le revenu au sommet de la pyramide de la richesse, les énormes différences de revenus entre ceux qui sont bien lotis et ceux qui sont extrêmement riches, et sur la position des femmes pour qui la seule voie vers une vie confortable et riche passait par le mariage. C’est pourquoi le mariage et l’argent, les « alliances » et les « mésalliances » avaient tant d’importance dans la littérature de l’époque.

Je ne connais pas bien la littérature d’aujourd’hui. Un changement clair me semble avoir eu lieu au cours du siècle dernier. L’objectif est moins de présenter une peinture de la société que de se concentrer sur les individus, leur vie intérieure. Je pense que par principe, une telle littérature est bien moins critique des arrangements sociaux, principalement parce qu’elle les considère comme acquis, ou, si elle est critique, les regarde comme reflétant un malaise humain de base, une condition humaine immuable. Pour prendre un exemple, j’ai aimé et presque tout lu de Sartre et Camus, mais vous ne trouverez presque aucun chiffre dans leurs livres sur combien untel gagne ou sur combien les choses coûtent. Ceci, malgré l’ostensible gauchisme politique de Sartre. De ce point de vue, Balzac était bien plus gauchiste que ce dernier. Pareillement, vous ne trouverez rien de tel dans les sept volumes de Proust malgré le fait que son œuvre est largement au sujet de la société et des changements de fortune (souvent, littéralement, des changements de richesses) parmi la classe aux plus hauts revenus. Mais savons-nous combien Mme de Guermantes gagne par an ? De combien est-elle plus riche que Swann ? Ou, d’ailleurs, quel est le revenu du père du narrateur ?

Je ne vois pas la littérature d’aujourd’hui comme une force puissante pour le changement. Je pense qu’elle a perdu l’importance qu’elle avait au 19e siècle en Europe, en Russie et aux États-Unis. Aujourd’hui, vous avez des hystéries au sujet de tel ou tel livre, et pas plutôt que le volume a été lu, ou plutôt semi-lu, il tombe dans l’oubli.

S.P. – Dans le paysage d’aujourd’hui, où voyez-vous les Tolstoï et les Austen – des auteurs et des artistes qui présentent une vue détaillée des inégalités ?

B.M. – Je pense que ce rôle a été « spécialisé » comme tant d’autres rôles dans les sociétés modernes. Il appartient maintenant aux économistes et aux philosophes politiques. Je vois ces deux groupes (combinés peut-être aux sociologues dans la mesure où ceux-ci sont désireux d’étudier des phénomènes sociaux sérieux plutôt que les menus détails du comportement humain) comme les personnes, peut-être mues par leurs intérêts professionnels, qui peuvent dire quelque chose au sujet des inégalités dans les sociétés où nous vivons. Et dire quelque chose qui ne soit pas simplement des « conjectures » ou des « sentiments », mais fondé sur une preuve empirique ou (dans le cas des philosophes politiques) sur une étude sérieuse et une analyse de la manière dont les sociétés peuvent ou devraient être organisées.

Pour être clair, j’aimerais donner un exemple. Considérez le mouvement actuel des indignados, le mouvement des (comme le slogan le dit) « 99% contre le 1% ». Mais si l’on demande où, dans la distribution du revenu mondiale, se trouvent ces « 99% » qui manifestent dans les pays riches, nous trouvons qu’ils sont dans la position supérieure de la distribution du revenu mondiale, disons, autour du 80e percentile. En d’autres mots, ils sont plus riches que les 4/5e des individus vivant dans le monde. Ceci étant, ce n’est pas un argument pour dire qu’ils ne devraient pas manifester, mais ce fait empirique soulève immédiatement la question suivante, celle dont traitent les philosophes politiques.

Supposons, pas tout à fait de manière irréaliste, que la mondialisation marche de telle façon qu’elle augmente les revenus de certains parmi ces « autres » 4/5e de l’humanité, ceux vivant en Chine, en Inde, en Afrique, et qu’elle réduit les revenus de ceux qui manifestent dans les rues des pays riches. Que devrait être la réponse à cela ? Devrions-nous considérer ce qui est meilleur pour le monde dans son entièreté, et dire ainsi à ces « 99% » : « vous autres, vous êtes déjà riches selon les standards mondiaux, laissez maintenant quelques autres, qui sont prêts à faire votre travail pour une fraction de l’argent que vous demandez, le faire, et améliorer ce faisant leur sort d’un rien, gagner un accès à l’eau potable ou donner naissance sans danger, par exemple, des choses que vous avez déjà et tenez pour acquises ». Ou bien, devrions-nous dire au contraire que la redistribution doit d’abord avoir lieu dans chaque pays individuellement, c’est-à-dire que l’on redistribue l’argent depuis le 1% le plus riche vers les autres 99% dans le même pays, et, seulement une fois cela accompli, pourrions-nous commencer à envisager ce qui devrait se faire à l’échelle mondiale ? Un optimum global serait ainsi atteint quand chaque pays prendrait soin de lui-même au mieux en premier lieu. Cette dernière position, où l’optimum global n’existe pas en tant que tel mais est le « produit » des optimums nationaux, est la position de John Rawls. La précédente, qui considère l’intérêt de tous sans se préoccuper des pays individuellement, est celle de philosophes politiques plus radicaux. Mais, comme on le voit, prendre une position ou l’autre a des conséquences très différentes sur notre attitude envers la mondialisation ou les revendications des mouvements comme les indignados ou Occupy Wall Street.

S.P. – Jusqu’à la fin, votre livre se refuse à entrer dans des considérations politiques sur l’inégalité. Quel est le rôle de la politique dans le combat ou le développement des inégalités ?

B.M. – Je voulais que mon livre reste relativement neutre par rapport à la politique d’aujourd’hui. Les livres de plaidoyer avec des titres longs et idiots ne font pas long feu. Ce sont des « éphémérides ». Qui se souvient aujourd’hui des livres qui, il y a vingt ans, nous mettaient en garde contre la prise de pouvoir mondiale du Japon et pressaient les gouvernements occidentaux de réagir ? Et avant cela, c’était l’OPEC, et encore avant cela, l’Union soviétique.

Réduire les inégalités sera un processus long et laborieux. Depuis la fin des années 1970, une large poussée des inégalités en Occident a eu lieu en conséquence d’un changement idéologique à l’avant-garde de laquelle se trouvaient des économistes comme Hayek et Friedman, et l’école de Chicago en général. Leurs prescriptions furent mises en œuvres par Margaret Thatcher et Ronald Reagan. A la même époque, Deng Xiaoping, suivant la même idéologie (« être riche, c’est être glorieux »), initia des réformes néolibérales similaires en Chine. Et à bien des égards, les réformes en Occident et en Chine ont eu un succès extraordinaire.

Mais elles ont échoué à offrir une société plus heureuse. L’argent, très inégalement distribué, a alimenté la corruption, permis un mode de vie ostentatoire, a rendu triviaux les soucis liés à la pauvreté des autres au travers de fausses organisations-jouets détenues par les riches, a réduit les services sociaux de base dans lesquels l’idée de la citoyenneté était ancrée, comme l’éducation et la santé. Les sociétés occidentales sont devenues beaucoup plus riches, mais, pour reprendre la raillerie de Thatcher, elles sont devenues bien moins sociétés : elles sont souvent seulement des collections d’individus en compétition mutuelle. La Chine est devenue immensément plus riche qu’en 1978, mais c’est l’un des quelques pays dans le monde où les gens sont de moins en moins heureux année après année, selon la World Values Survey. Et les mêmes programmes néolibéraux, mis en œuvre en Russie, après avoir presque détruit le pays, ont conduit à des augmentations massives de la mortalité, ils ont détruit les liens sociaux et les ont remplacés par du cynisme et de l’anomie.

Aussi, pour défaire certains de ces développements, il nous faudra des années de changement. Qui plus est, on ne voit pas même à l’horizon comment ces demandes pour du changement peuvent être traduites dans le processus politique, et comment les politiciens peuvent les utiliser pour gagner des élections. Parce que, tant qu’ils ne les considéreront pas comme des stratégies gagnantes, ils n’iront pas vraiment, l’un après l’autre, concourir sur cette plateforme. Obama a été une grande déception de ce point de vue. Il était chargé d’un mandat massif pour le changement mais a fait peu de choses.

Nous sommes souvent pessimistes ou même cyniques quant à la capacité des politiciens d’offrir du changement. Mais notez que cette capacité, en démocratie, dépend de ce que la population veut. Aussi, peut-être devrions-nous nous tourner davantage vers nous-mêmes que vers les politiciens pour comprendre pourquoi changer le modèle économique actuel est si difficile. Malgré plusieurs effets négatifs du néolibéralisme (que j’ai mentionnés plus haut), un large segment de la population en a bénéficié, et même certains parmi ceux qui n’y ont pas gagné « objectivement » ont totalement internalisé ses valeurs.

Il semble que nous voulions tous une maison achetée sans acompte, nous achetons une deuxième voiture si nous obtenons un crédit pas cher, nous avons des factures sur nos cartes de crédit bien au-delà de nos moyens, nous ne voulons pas d’augmentation des prix de l’essence, nous voulons voyager en avion même si cela génère de la pollution, nous mettons en route la climatisation dès qu’il fait plus de vingt-cinq degrés, nous voulons voir tous les derniers films et DVDs, nous avons plusieurs postes de télévision dernier cri, etc. Nous nous plaignons souvent d’un emploi précaire mais nous ne voulons renoncer à aucun des bénéfices, réels ou faux, qui dérivent de l’approche Reagan/Thatcher de l’économie.

Quand une majorité suffisante de personnes aura un sentiment différent, je suis sûr qu’il y aura des politiciens qui le comprendront, et gagneront des élections avec ce nouveau programme (pro-égalité), et le mettront même en œuvre. Les politiciens sont simplement des entrepreneurs : si des gens veulent une certaine politique, ils l’offriront, de la même manière qu’un établissement vous proposera un café gourmet pourvu qu’un nombre suffisant parmi nous le veuille et soit prêt à payer pour cela.

S.P. – Est-ce que l’inégalité est devenue une devise commune dans le monde d’aujourd’hui, ou bien la prospérité est-elle davantage partagée que par le passé ?

B.M. – L’inégalité globale, l’inégalité entre les citoyens du monde, est à un niveau très élevé depuis vingt ans. Ce niveau est le plus élevé, ou presque, de l’histoire : après la révolution industrielle, certaines classes, et puis certaines nations, sont devenues riches et les autres sont restées pauvres. Cela a élevé l’inégalité globale de 1820 à environ 1970-80. Après cela, elle est restée sans tendance claire, mais à ce niveau élevé. Mais depuis les dix dernières années, grâce aux taux de croissance importants en Chine et en Inde, il se peut que nous commencions à voir un déclin de l’inégalité globale. Si ces tendances se poursuivent sur les vingt ou trente prochaines années, l’inégalité globale pourrait baisser substantiellement. Mais l’on ne devrait pas oublier que cela dépend crucialement de ce qui se passe en Chine, et que d’autres pays pauvres et populeux comme le Nigeria, le Bangladesh, les Philippines, le Soudan, etc., n’ont pas eu beaucoup de croissance économique. Avec la croissance de leur population, il se peut qu’ils poussent l’inégalité globale vers le haut.

D’un autre côté, le monde est plus riche aujourd’hui qu’à n’importe quel autre moment dans l’histoire. Il n’y a aucun doute sur ce point. Le 20e siècle a été justement appelé par [l’historien britannique] Eric Hosbawm « le siècle des extrêmes » : jamais des progrès aussi importants n’avaient été réalisés auparavant pour autant de monde, et jamais autant de monde n’avait été tué et exterminé par des idéologies extrêmes. Le défi du 21e siècle est de mettre fin à ce dernier point. Mais les développements de la première décennie de ce siècle n’ont pas produit beaucoup de raisons d’être optimiste.

S.P. – Quel serait le meilleur moyen de limiter les inégalités dans un monde globalisé ?

B.M. – Il y a trois moyens pour s’y prendre. Le premier est une plus grande redistribution du monde riche vers le monde pauvre. Mais l’on peut aisément écarter ce chemin. L’aide au développement officielle totale est un peu au-dessus de 100 milliards de dollars par an, ce qui est à peu près équivalent à la somme payée en bonus pour les « bonnes performances » par Goldman Sachs depuis le début de la crise. De telles sommes ne seront pas une solution à la pauvreté mondiale ou à l’inégalité globale, et de plus, ces fonds vont diminuer dans la mesure où le monde riche a du mal à s’extraire de la crise.

La deuxième manière consiste à accélérer la croissance dans les pays pauvres, et l’Afrique en particulier. C’est en fait la meilleure façon de s’attaquer à la pauvreté et à l’inégalité tout à la fois. Mais c’est plus facile à dire qu’à faire. Même si la dernière décennie a été bonne généralement pour l’Afrique, le bilan global pour l’ère post-indépendance est mauvais, et dans certains cas, catastrophiquement mauvais. Ceci étant, je ne suis pas tout à fait pessimiste. L’Afrique sub-saharienne a commencé à mettre de l’ordre dans certains de ses problèmes, et pourrait continuer à avoir des taux de croissance relativement élevés. Cependant, le fossé entre les revenus moyens d’Afrique et d’Europe est désormais si profond, qu’il faudrait quelques centaines d’années pour l’entamer significativement.

Ce qui nous laisse une troisième solution pour réduire les disparités globales : la migration. En principe, ça n’est pas différent du fait d’accélérer la croissance du revenu dans un quelconque pays pauvre. La seule différence – mais politiquement c’est une différence significative – est qu’une personne pauvre améliore son sort en déménageant ailleurs plutôt qu’en restant là où elle est née. La migration est certainement l’outil le plus efficace pour la réduction de l’inégalité globale. Ouvrir les frontières de l’Europe et des États-Unis permettrait d’attirer des millions de migrants et leurs niveaux de vie s’élèveraient. On voit cela tous les jours à une moindre échelle, mais on l’a vu également à la fin du 19e siècle et au début du 20e siècle, quand les migrations étaient deux à cinq fois supérieures (en proportion de la population d’alors) à aujourd’hui. La plupart de ceux qui migraient augmentaient leurs revenus.

Cependant il y a deux problèmes importants avec la migration. Premièrement, cela mènerait à des revenus plus bas pour certaines personnes vivant dans les pays d’accueil, et elles utiliseraient (comme elles le font actuellement) tous les moyens politiques pour l’arrêter. Deuxièmement, cela crée parfois un « clash des civilisations » inconfortable quand des normes culturelles différentes se heurtent les unes aux autres. Cela produit un retour de bâton, qui est évident aujourd’hui en Europe. C’est une réaction compréhensible, même si beaucoup d’Européens devraient peut-être réfléchir à l’époque où ils émigraient, que ce soit de manière pacifique ou de manière violente, vers le reste du monde, et combien ils y trouvaient des avantages. Il semble maintenant que la boucle soit bouclée : les autres émigrent vers l’Europe.

Entretien réalisé et traduit de l’anglais par Niels Planel.

Voir aussi:
Workers of the Western world
Chrystia Freeland
Reuters
Dec 2, 2011

(Reuters) – Branko Milanovic has some good news for the squeezed Western middle class – and also some bad news.

Good news first: The past 150 years have been an astonishing economic victory for the workers of the Western world. The bad news is that workers in the developing world have been left out, and their entry into the global economy will have complex and uneven consequences.

Milanovic’s first conclusion is contrarian, at least in its tone. After all, with unemployment in the United States at more than 9 percent and Europe struggling to muddle through its most serious economic crisis since the Second World War, Western workers are feeling anything but triumphant.

But one of the pleasures of Milanovic’s work is a point of view that is both wide and deep.

Milanovic, a World Bank economist who earned his doctorate in his native Yugoslavia, has an intuitively international frame of reference. Both qualities are in evidence in « Global Inequality: From Class to Location, From Proletarians to Migrants, » a working paper released this autumn by the World Bank Development Research Group.

Milanovic contends that the big economic story of the past 150 years is the triumph of the proletariat in the industrialized world. His starting point is 1848 when Europe was convulsed in revolution, industrialization was beginning to really bite, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto.

Their central assertion, Milanovic writes, was that capitalists (and their class allies, the landowners) exploited workers, and that the workers of the world were equally and similarly oppressed.

It turns out that Marx and Engels were pretty good economic reporters. Surveying the economic history literature, Milanovic finds that between 1800 and 1849, the wage of an unskilled laborer in India, one of the poorest countries at the time, was 30 percent that of an equivalent worker in England, one of the richest. Here is another data point: in the 1820s, real wages in the Netherlands were just 70 percent higher than those in the Yangtze Valley in China.

But Marx and Engels did not do as well as economic forecasters. They predicted that oppression of the proletariat would get worse, creating an international – and internationally exploited – working class.

Instead, Milanovic shows that over the subsequent century and a half, industrial capitalism hugely enriched the workers in the countries where it flourished – and widened the gap between them and workers in those parts of the world where it did not take hold.

One way to understand what has happened, Milanovic says, is to use a measure of global inequality developed by François Bourguignon and Christian Morrisson in a 2002 paper. They calculated the global Gini coefficient, a popular measure of inequality, to have been 53 in 1850, with roughly half due to location – or inequality between countries – and half due to class. By Milanovic’s calculation, the global Gini coefficient had risen to 65.4 by 2005. The striking change, though, is in its composition: 85 percent is due to location, and just 15 percent due to class.

Comparable wages in developed and developing countries are another way to illustrate the gap. Milanovic uses the 2009 global prices and earnings report compiled by UBS, the Swiss bank. This showed that the nominal after-tax wage for a building laborer in New York was $16.60 an hour, compared with 80 cents in Beijing, 60 cents in Nairobi and 50 cents in New Delhi, a gap that is orders of magnitude greater than the one in the 19th century.

Interestingly, at a time when unskilled workers are the ones we worry are getting the rawest deal, the difference in earnings between New York engineers and their developing world counterparts is much smaller: engineers earn $26.50 an hour in New York, $5.80 in Beijing, $4 in Nairobi and $2.90 in New Delhi.

Milanovic has two important takeaways from all of this. The first is that in the past century and a half, « the specter of communism » in the Western world « was exorcised » because industrial capitalism did such a good job of enriching the erstwhile proletariat. His second conclusion is that the big cleavage in the world today is not between classes within countries, but between the rich West and the poor developing world. As a result, he predicts « huge migratory pressures because people can increase their incomes several-fold if they migrate. »

I wonder, though, if the disparity Milanovic documents is already creating a different shift in the global economy. Thanks to new communications and transportation technologies, and the opening up of the world economy, immigration is not the only way to match cheap workers from developing economies with better-paid jobs in the developing world. Another way to do it is to move jobs to where workers live.

Economists are not the only ones who can read the UBS research – business people do, too. And some of them are concluding, as one hedge fund manager said at a recent dinner speech in New York, that « the low-skilled American worker is the most overpaid worker in the world. »

At a time when Western capitalism is huffing and wheezing, Milanovic’s paper is a vivid reminder of how much it has accomplished. But he also highlights the big new challenge – how to bring the rewards of capitalism to the workers of the developing world at a time when the standard of living of their Western counterparts has stalled.

(Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Voir également:

Thy Neighbor’s Wealth
Catherine Rampell
NYT
January 28, 2011

Who needs to keep up with the Joneses? What people really care about is keeping up with the Rockefellers. That’s the main theme of “The Haves and the Have-Nots,” an eclectic book on inequality that attempts to document the long history of coveting by the poor, and the grim consequences of that coveting.

THE HAVES AND THE HAVE-NOTS

A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality

By Branko Milanovic

258 pp. Basic Books. $27.95.
Written by the World Bank economist and development specialist Branko Milanovic, this survey of income distribution past and present is constructed as a sort of textbook-almanac hybrid. It revolves around three technical essays summarizing the academic literature on inequality, which are each followed by a series of quick-hit vignettes about quirkier subjects, like how living standards in 19th-century Russia may have influenced Anna Karenina’s doomed romance, or who the richest person in history was.

The first essay is a primer on how economists think about income inequality within a country — in particular, how it is measured, and how it is related to a country’s overall economic health. At a very basic, agrarian level of development, Milanovic explains, people’s incomes are relatively equal; everyone is living at or close to subsistence level. But as more advanced technologies become available and enable workers to differentiate their skills, a gulf between rich and poor becomes possible.

This section also gingerly approaches the contentious debate over whether inequality is good or bad for economic growth, but ultimately quibbles with the question itself. “There is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ inequality,” Milanovic writes, “just as there is good and bad cholesterol.” The possibility of unequal economic outcomes motivates people to work harder, he argues, although at some point it can lead to the preservation of acquired positions, which causes economies to stagnate.

In his second and third essays, Milanovic switches to his obvious passion: inequality around the world. These sections encourage readers to better appreciate their own living standards and to think more skeptically about who is responsible for their success.

As Milanovic notes, an astounding 60 percent of a person’s income is determined merely by where she was born (and an additional 20 percent is dictated by how rich her parents were). He also makes interesting international comparisons. The typical person in the top 5 percent of the Indian population, for example, makes the same as or less than the typical person in the bottom 5 percent of the American population. That’s right: America’s poorest are, on average, richer than India’s richest — extravagant Mumbai mansions notwithstanding.

It is no wonder then, Milanovic says, that so many from the third world risk life and limb to sneak into the first. A recent World Bank survey suggested that “countries that have done economically poorly would, if free migration were allowed, remain perhaps without half or more of their populations.” Mass-migration attempts are met with sealed borders in the developed world, which then results in the deaths of thousands of anonymous indigents journeying to promised lands only to be swallowed up by the Mediterranean or charred in the Arizona desert.

But while Milanovic demonstrates that inequality between countries is unquestionably toxic, he is less persuasive about the effects of inequality within countries. He frequently assumes that this kind of inequality is by its very nature problematic, but provides scant historical evidence about why, particularly if mobility is ­possible.

In general, mobility — and the policies that promote it — are given disappointingly little space. The same goes for how income inequality might affect the functioning of a democracy.

As a result of such blind spots, “The Haves and the Have-Nots” can feel somewhat patchy or disorganized at times. Milanovic’s more colorful vignettes, on the other hand, are almost uniformly delightful. No matter where you are on the income ladder, Milanovic’s examination of whether Bill Gates is richer than Nero makes for great cocktail party ­conversation.

Catherine Rampell is the economics editor at NYTimes.com.

Voir encore:

The frontiers of inequality
The Economist
Free Exchange | Washington, DC
Dec 6th 2007

AN inventive October NBER paper by Branko Milanovic, Peter H. Lindert, Jeffrey G. Williamson sets itself the task of « Measuring Ancient Inequality ». Therein the authors develop two new interesting concepts: the inequality possibility frontier, which sets the limit of possible inequality, and the extraction ratio, the ratio between the feasible maximum and the actual level of inequality. The idea in a nutshell is that the higher a society’s mean income, the more there is for the ruling class possibly to take. So how much of that have they actually been taking historically, and how does it differ from today?

Amidst a great deal of interesting discussion of the problems inherent in estimating incomes and their distribution in ye olden times, Messrs Milanovic, Lindert, and Williamson find that the extraction ratio in pre-industrial societies of yore were much higher than in pre-industrial nations today, although their actual levels of inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) are very similar. A really, really poor country may have a low level of actual inequality, since even the rich have so little. But they may have nevetheless taken all they can get from the less powerful. A richer and nominally less equal place may also be rather less bandit-like; the powerful could hoard more, but they don’t. Because potential and actual inequality come apart, measured actual inequality may therefore tell us less than we think. For example:

Tanzania … with a relatively low Gini of 35 may be less egalitarian than it appears since measured inequality lies so close to (or indeed above) its inequality possibility frontier. … On the other hand, with a much higher Gini of almost 48, Malaysia … has extracted only about one-half of maximum inequality, and thus is farther away from the IPF.
Likewise:

As a country becomes richer, its feasible inequality expands. Consequently, if recorded inequality is stable, the inequality extraction ratio must fall; and even if recorded inequality goes up, the ratio may not.
I have some serious philosophical qualms about they way the authors construct the idea of the inequality possibility frontier, and about the bias inherent in thinking of inequality as necessarily involving some kind of « extraction »–though I don’t doubt that as a historical rule it has. Nevertheless, this work contains the germ of an important advance in thinking about inequality.

First, it moves us away from the sheer craziness of thinking about levels of inequality in isolation from levels of income. Second, it moves us toward thinking about the relationship between the mechanisms of growth and the mechanisms responsible for patterns of income.

For example, robust property rights and effective constraints on predation by and through the state should help explain both economic growth and a falling or stable extraction ratio.

The great cause of inequality is political power. As the authors put it:

The frequent claim that inequality promotes accumulation and growth does not get much support from history. On the contrary, great economic inequality has always been correlated with extreme concentration of political power, and that power has always been used to widen the income gaps through rent-seeking and rent-keeping, forces that demonstrably retard economic growth.
The implication is that a system that limits political power, and keeps rent-seeking to a minimum, will tend to grow, other things equal. Now, my question is this: If there is a way to prevent the economic inequality that emerges through the process of economic exchange from translating into concentrayed political power, such that whatever level of inequality emerges over time is not in fact due to « extraction »–not due to predation, rent-seeking, or anyone’s rigging the system in their favour–then should it still worry us?

Who Was the Richest Person Ever?
Marcus Crassus, John D. Rockefeller, Carlos Slim, Mikhail Khodorovsky — who’s the richest of them all?
By Branko Milanovic, October 21, 2011

When the richissime decide to play a political role in their own countries, then their power there may exceed even the power of the most globally rich.

Mikhail Khodorovsky was richer, and potentially more powerful, than Rockefeller in the United States in 1937.

No stadium in Mexico, not even the famous Azteca, would come close to accommodating all the compatriots Mr. Slim could hire with his annual income.

Crassus’s income was equal to the annual incomes of about 32,000 people, a crowd that would fill about half of the Colosseum.

Comparing incomes from the past with those of the present is not easy. We do not have an exchange rate that would convert Roman sesterces or Castellan 17th-century pesos into dollars of equal purchasing power today.

Even more, what “equal purchasing power” might mean in that case is far from clear. “Equal purchasing power” should mean that one is able to buy with X Roman sesterces the same bundle of goods and services as with Y U.S. dollars today. But not only have the bundles changed (no DVDs in Roman times), but were we to constrain the bundle to cover only the goods that existed both then and now, we would soon find that the relative prices have changed substantially.

Services then were relatively cheap (because wages were low). Nowadays, services in rich countries are expensive. The reverse would be true for bread or olive oil. Thus, to compare the wealth and income of the rich in several historical periods, the most reasonable approach is to situate them in their historical context and measure their economic power in terms of their ability to purchase human labor (of average skill) at that time and place.

In some sense, a given quantum of human labor is a universal yardstick with which we measure welfare. As Adam Smith wrote more than 200 years ago, “[A person] must be rich or poor according to the quantity of labor which he can command.” Moreover, this quantum embodies improvements in productivity and welfare over time, since the income of somebody like Bill Gates today will be measured against the average incomes of people who currently live in the United States.

A natural place to start is ancient Rome, for which we have data on the extremely wealthy individuals and whose economy was sufficiently “modern” and monetized to make comparisons with the present, or more recent past, meaningful. We can consider three individuals from the classic Roman age.

The fabulously rich triumvir Marcus Crassus’s fortune was estimated around the year 50 BCE at some 200 million sesterces (HS). The emperor Octavian Augustus’s imperial household fortune was estimated at 250 million HS around the year 14 CE. Finally, the enormously rich freedman Marcus Antonius Pallas (under Nero) is thought to have been worth 300 million HS in the year 52.

Take Crassus, who has remained associated with extravagant affluence (not to be confused, though, with the Greek king Croesus, whose name has become eponymous with wealth). With 200 million sesterces and an average annual interest rate of 6% (which was considered a “normal” interest rate in the Roman “golden age” — that is, before the inflation of the third century), Crassus’s annual income could be estimated at 12 million HS.

The mean income of Roman citizens around the time of Octavian’s death (14 CE) is thought to have been about 380 sesterces per annum, and we can assume that it was about the same 60 years earlier, when Crassus lived. Thus expressed, Crassus’s income was equal to the annual incomes of about 32,000 people, a crowd that would fill about half of the Colosseum.

Let us fast-forward more closely to the present and apply the same reasoning to three American wealth icons: Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates. Carnegie’s fortune reached its peak in 1901 when he purchased U.S. Steel. His share in U.S. Steel was $225 million. Applying the same return of 6%, and using U.S. GDP per capita (in 1901 prices) of $282, allows us to conclude that Carnegie’s income exceeded that of Crassus.

With his annual income, Carnegie could have purchased the labor of almost 48,000 people at the time without making any dent in his fortune. (Notice that in all these calculations, we assume that the wealth of the richissime individual remains intact. He simply uses his annual income, that is, yield from his wealth, to purchase labor.)

An equivalent calculation for Rockefeller, taking his wealth at its 1937 peak ($1.4 billion), yields Rockefeller’s income to be equal to that of about 116,000 people in the United States in the year 1937. Thus, Rockefeller was almost four times as rich as Crassus and more than twice as rich as Andrew Carnegie. The people whom he could hire would easily fill Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, and even quite a few would have remained outside the gates.

How does Bill Gates fare in this kind of comparison? Bill Gates’s fortune in 2005 was put by Forbes at $50 billion. Income could then be estimated at $3 billion annually, and since the U.S. GDP per capita in 2005 was about $40,000, Bill Gates could, with his income, command about 75,000 workers. This places him somewhere between Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, but much above the “poor” Marcus Crassus.

But this calculation leaves open the question of how to treat billionaires such as the Russian Mikhail Khodorovsky and Mexican Carlos Slim, who are both “global” and “national.” Khodorovsky’s wealth, at the time when he was the richest man in Russia in 2003, was estimated at $24 billion.

Globally speaking, he was much less rich than Bill Gates. Yet if we assess his fortune locally and again use the same assumptions as before, he was able to buy more than a quarter million annual units of labor, at their average price. In other words, contrasted with the relatively low incomes of his countrymen, Mikhail Khodorovsky was richer, and potentially more powerful, than Rockefeller in the United States in 1937. It is probably this latter fact — the potential political power — that brought him to the attention of the Kremlin.

Without touching a penny of his wealth, Khodorovsky could, if need be, create an army of a quarter-million people. He was negotiating with both the Americans and the Chinese, almost as a state would, the construction of new gas and oil pipelines. Such potential power met its nemesis in his downfall and eventual jailing. However, Russian history being what it is, the shortest way between two stints in power often takes one through a detour in Siberia. We might not have seen the last of Mr. Khodorovsky.

The Mexican Carlos Slim does Khodorovsky one better. His wealth, also according to Forbes magazine, prior to the global financial crisis in 2009, was estimated at more than $53 billion. Using the same calculation as before, we find that Slim could command even more labor than Khodorovsky at his peak: some 440,000 Mexicans. So he appears to have been, locally, the richest of all! No stadium in Mexico, not even the famous Azteca, would come close to accommodating all the compatriots Mr. Slim could hire with his annual income.

Another complication that may be introduced is the size of populations. When Crassus lived and commanded the labor incomes of 32,000 people, this represented one out of each 1,500 people living in the Roman Empire at the time. Rockefeller’s 116,000 Americans were a higher proportion of the U.S. population: one person out of each 1,100 people. Thus, in both respects Rockefeller beats Crassus.

Can we then say who was the richest of them all? Since the wealthy also tend to go “global” and measure their wealth against the wealth of other rich people living in different countries, it was probably Rockefeller who was the richest of all because he was able to command the highest number of labor units in the then-richest country in the world.

But when the richissime decide to play a political role in their own countries (which may not be the richest countries in the world, such as, for example, Russia and Mexico), then their power there may exceed even the power of the most globally rich.

Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from THE HAVES AND THE HAVE-NOTS: A BRIEF AND IDIOSYNCRATIC HISTORY OF GLOBAL INEQUALITY by Branko Milanovic. Copyright Basic Books 2011. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

Voir enfin:

Rémi Fraisse, victime d’une guerre de civilisation

Edgar Morin (Sociologue et philosophe)

Le Monde

04.11.2014

A l’image d’Astérix défendant un petit bout périphérique de Bretagne face à un immense empire, les opposants au barrage de Sivens semblent mener une résistance dérisoire à une énorme machine bulldozerisante qui ravage la planète animée par la soif effrénée du gain. Ils luttent pour garder un territoire vivant, empêcher la machine d’installer l’agriculture industrialisée du maïs, conserver leur terroir, leur zone boisée, sauver une oasis alors que se déchaîne la désertification monoculturelle avec ses engrais tueurs de sols, tueurs de vie, où plus un ver de terre ne se tortille ou plus un oiseau ne chante.

Cette machine croit détruire un passé arriéré, elle détruit par contre une alternative humaine d’avenir. Elle a détruit la paysannerie, l’exploitation fermière à dimension humaine. Elle veut répandre partout l’agriculture et l’élevage à grande échelle. Elle veut empêcher l’agro-écologie pionnière. Elle a la bénédiction de l’Etat, du gouvernement, de la classe politique. Elle ne sait pas que l’agro-écologie crée les premiers bourgeons d’un futur social qui veut naître, elle ne sait pas que les « écolos » défendent le « vouloir vivre ensemble ».

Elle ne sait pas que les îlots de résistance sont des îlots d’espérance. Les tenants de l’économie libérale, de l’entreprise über alles, de la compétitivité, de l’hyper-rentabilité, se croient réalistes alors que le calcul qui est leur instrument de connaissance les aveugle sur les vraies et incalculables réalités des vies humaines, joie, peine, bonheur, malheur, amour et amitié.

Le caractère abstrait, anonyme et anonymisant de cette machine énorme, lourdement armée pour défendre son barrage, a déclenché le meurtre d’un jeune homme bien concret, bien pacifique, animé par le respect de la vie et l’aspiration à une autre vie.

Nouvel avenir
A part les violents se disant anarchistes, enragés et inconscients saboteurs, les protestataires, habitants locaux et écologistes venus de diverses régions de France, étaient, en résistant à l’énorme machine, les porteurs et porteuses d’un nouvel avenir.

Le problème du barrage de Sivens est apparemment mineur, local. Mais par l’entêtement à vouloir imposer ce barrage sans tenir compte des réserves et critiques, par l’entêtement de l’Etat à vouloir le défendre par ses forces armées, allant jusqu’à utiliser les grenades, par l’entêtement des opposants de la cause du barrage dans une petite vallée d’une petite région, la guerre du barrage de Sivens est devenue le symbole et le microcosme de la vraie guerre de civilisation qui se mène dans le pays et plus largement sur la planète.

L’eau, qui, comme le soleil, était un bien commun à tous les humains, est devenue objet marchand sur notre planète. Les eaux sont appropriées et captées par des puissances financières et/ou colonisatrices, dérobées aux communautés locales pour bénéficier à des multinationales agricoles ou minières. Partout, au Brésil, au Pérou, au Canada, en Chine… les indigènes et régionaux sont dépouillés de leurs eaux et de leurs terres par la machine infernale, le bulldozer nommé croissance.

Dans le Tarn, une majorité d’élus, aveuglée par la vulgate économique des possédants adoptée par le gouvernement, croient œuvrer pour la prospérité de leur territoire sans savoir qu’ils contribuent à sa désertification humaine et biologique. Et il est accablant que le gouvernement puisse aujourd’hui combattre avec une détermination impavide une juste rébellion de bonnes volontés issue de la société civile.

Pire, il a fait silence officiel embarrassé sur la mort d’un jeune homme de 21 ans, amoureux de la vie, communiste candide, solidaire des victimes de la terrible machine, venu en témoin et non en combattant. Quoi, pas une émotion, pas un désarroi ? Il faut attendre une semaine l’oraison funèbre du président de la République pour lui laisser choisir des mots bien mesurés et équilibrés alors que la force de la machine est démesurée et que la situation est déséquilibrée en défaveur des lésés et des victimes.

Ce ne sont pas les lancers de pavés et les ­vitres brisées qui exprimeront la cause non violente de la civilisation écologisée dont la mort de Rémi Fraisse est devenue le ­symbole, l’emblème et le martyre. C’est avec une grande prise de conscience, capable de relier toutes les initiatives alternatives au productivisme aveugle, qu’un véritable hommage peut être rendu à Rémi Fraisse.

Voir par ailleurs:

The Ultimate Global Antipoverty Program
Extreme poverty fell to 15% in 2011, from 36% in 1990. Credit goes to the spread of capitalism.
Douglas A. Irwin
WSJ
Nov. 2, 2014

The World Bank reported on Oct. 9 that the share of the world population living in extreme poverty had fallen to 15% in 2011 from 36% in 1990. Earlier this year, the International Labor Office reported that the number of workers in the world earning less than $1.25 a day has fallen to 375 million 2013 from 811 million in 1991.

Such stunning news seems to have escaped public notice, but it means something extraordinary: The past 25 years have witnessed the greatest reduction in global poverty in the history of the world.

To what should this be attributed? Official organizations noting the trend have tended to waffle, but let’s be blunt: The credit goes to the spread of capitalism. Over the past few decades, developing countries have embraced economic-policy reforms that have cleared the way for private enterprise.

China and India are leading examples. In 1978 China began allowing private agricultural plots, permitted private businesses, and ended the state monopoly on foreign trade. The result has been phenomenal economic growth, higher wages for workers—and a big decline in poverty. For the most part all the government had to do was get out of the way. State-owned enterprises are still a large part of China’s economy, but the much more dynamic and productive private sector has been the driving force for change.

In 1991 India started dismantling the “license raj”—the need for government approval to start a business, expand capacity or even purchase foreign goods like computers and spare parts. Such policies strangled the Indian economy for decades and kept millions in poverty. When the government stopped suffocating business, the Indian economy began to flourish, with faster growth, higher wages and reduced poverty.

The economic progress of China and India, which are home to more than 35% of the world’s population, explains much of the global poverty decline. But many other countries, from Colombia to Vietnam, have enacted their own reforms.

Even Africa is showing signs of improvement. In the 1970s and 1980s, Julius Nyerere and his brand of African socialism made Tanzania the darling of Western intellectuals. But the policies behind the slogans—agricultural collectives, nationalization and price controls, which were said to foster “self-reliance” and “equitable development”—left the economy in ruins. After a new government threw off the policy shackles in the mid-1980s, growth and poverty reduction have been remarkable.

The reduction in world poverty has attracted little attention because it runs against the narrative pushed by those hostile to capitalism. The Michael Moores of the world portray capitalism as a degrading system in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Yet thanks to growth in the developing world, world-wide income inequality—measured across countries and individual people—is falling, not rising, as Branko Milanovic of City University of New York and other researchers have shown.

College students and other young Americans are often confronted with a picture of global capitalism as something that resembles the “dark satanic mills” invoked by William Blake in “Jerusalem,” not a potential escape from horrendous rural poverty. Young Americans ages 18-29 have a positive view of socialism and a negative view of capitalism, according to a 2011 Pew Research poll. About half of American millennials view socialism favorably, compared with 13% of Americans age 65 and older.

Capitalism’s bad rap grew out of a false analogy that linked the term with “exploitation.” Marxists thought the old economic system in which landlords exploited peasants (feudalism) was being replaced by a new economic system in which capital owners exploited industrial workers (capitalism). But Adam Smith had earlier provided a more accurate description of the economy: a “commercial society.” The poorest parts of the world are precisely those that are cut off from the world of markets and commerce, often because of government policies.

Some 260 years ago, Smith noted that: “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.” Very few countries fulfill these simple requirements, but the number has been growing. The result is a dramatic improvement in human well-being around the world, an outcome that is cause for celebration.

Mr. Irwin is a professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Project at Dartmouth College.

Voir aussi:

The Berlin Wall Fell, but Communism Didn’t
From North Korea to Cuba, millions still live under tyrannous regimes.
Marion Smith
WSJ
Nov. 6, 2014

As the world marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, we should also remember the many dozens of people who died trying to get past it.

Ida Siekmann, the wall’s first casualty, died jumping out of her fourth-floor window while attempting to escape from East Berlin in August 1961. In January 1973, a young mother named Ingrid hid with her infant son in a crate in the back of a truck crossing from East to West. When the child began to cry at the East Berlin checkpoint, a desperate Ingrid covered his mouth with her hand, not realizing the child had an infection and couldn’t breathe through his nose. She made her way to freedom, but in the process suffocated her 15-month-old son. Chris Gueffroy, an East German buoyed by the ease of tensions between East and West in early 1989, believed that the shoot-on-sight order for the Berlin Wall had been lifted. He was mistaken. Gueffroy would be the last person shot attempting to flee Communist-occupied East Berlin.

But Gueffroy was far from the last victim of communism. Millions of people are still ruled by Communist regimes in places like Pyongyang, Hanoi and Havana.

As important as the fall of the Berlin Wall was, it was not the end of what John F. Kennedy called the “long, twilight struggle” against a sinister ideology. By looking at the population statistics of several nations we can estimate that 1.5 billion people still live under communism. Political prisoners continue to be rounded up, gulags still exist, millions are being starved, and untold numbers are being torn from families and friends simply because of their opposition to a totalitarian state.

Today, Communist regimes continue to brutalize and repress the hapless men, women and children unlucky enough to be born in the wrong country.

In China, thousands of Hong Kong protesters recently took to the streets demanding the right to elect their chief executive in open and honest elections. This democratic movement—the most important protests in China since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and massacre 25 years ago—was met with tear gas and pepper spray from a regime that does not tolerate dissent or criticism. The Communist Party routinely censors, beats and jails dissidents, and through the barbaric one-child policy has caused some 400 million abortions, according to statements by a Chinese official in 2011.

In Vietnam, every morning the unelected Communist government blasts state-sponsored propaganda over loud speakers across Hanoi, like a scene out of George Orwell ’s “1984.”

In Laos, where the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party tolerates no other political parties, the government owns all the media, restricts religious freedom, denies property rights, jails dissidents and tortures prisoners.

In Cuba, a moribund Communist junta maintains a chokehold on the island nation. Arbitrary arrests, beatings, intimidation and total media control are among the tools of the current regime, which has never owned up to its bloody past.

The Stalinesque abuses of North Korea are among the most shocking. As South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye recently told the United Nations, “This year marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the Korean Peninsula remains stifled by a wall of division.” On both sides of that wall—a 400-mile-long, 61-year-old demilitarized zone—are people with the same history, language and often family.

But whereas the capitalist South is free and prosperous, the Communist North is a prison of torture and starvation run by a family of dictators at war with freedom of religion, freedom of movement and freedom of thought. President Park is now challenging the U.N. General Assembly “to stand with us in tearing down the world’s last remaining wall of division.”

To tear down that wall will require the same moral clarity that brought down the concrete and barbed-wire barrier that divided Berlin 25 years ago. The Cold War may be over, but the battle on behalf of human freedom is still being waged every day. The triumph of liberty we celebrate on this anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s destruction must not be allowed to turn to complacency in the 21st century. Victory in the struggle against totalitarian oppression is far from inevitable, but this week we remember that it can be achieved.

Voir enfin:

The Most Senseless Environmental Crime of the 20th Century
Charles Homans
Pacific & Standard
November 12, 2013

Fifty years ago 180,000 whales disappeared from the oceans without a trace, and researchers are still trying to make sense of why. Inside the most irrational environmental crime of the century.

In the fall of 1946,  a 508-foot ship steamed out of the port of Odessa, Ukraine. In a previous life she was called the Wikinger (“Viking”) and sailed under the German flag, but she had been appropriated by the Soviet Union after the war and renamed the Slava (“Glory”). The Slava was a factory ship, crewed and equipped to separate one whale every 30 minutes into its useful elements, destined for oil, canned meat and liver, and bone meal. Sailing with her was a retinue of smaller, nimbler catcher vessels, their purpose betrayed by the harpoon guns mounted atop each clipper bow. They were bound for the whaling grounds off the coast of Antarctica. It was the first time Soviet whalers had ventured so far south.

The work began inauspiciously. In her first season, the Slava caught just 386 whales. But by the fifth—before which the fleet’s crew wrote a letter to Stalin pledging to bring home more than 500 tons of whale oil—the Slava’s annual catch was approaching 2,000. The next year it was 3,000. Then, in 1957, the ship’s crew discovered dense conglomerations of humpback whales to the north, off the coasts of Australia and New Zealand. There were so many of them, packed so close together, the Slava’s helicopter pilots joked that they could make an emergency landing on the animals’ backs.

In November 1959, the Slava was joined by a new fleet led by the Sovetskaya Ukraina, the largest whaling factory ship the world had ever seen. By now the harpooners—talented marksmen whose work demanded the dead-eyed calm of a sniper—were killing whales faster than the factory ships could process them. Sometimes the carcasses would drift alongside the ships until the meat spoiled, and the flensers would simply strip them of the blubber—a whaler on another fleet likened the process to peeling a banana—and heave the rest back into the sea.

The Soviet fleets killed almost 13,000 humpback whales in the 1959-60 season and nearly as many the next, when the Slava and Sovetskaya Ukraina were joined by a third factory ship, the Yuriy Dolgorukiy. It was grueling work: One former whaler, writing years later in a Moscow newspaper, claimed that five or six Soviet crewmen died on the Southern Hemisphere expeditions each year, and that a comparable number went mad. A scientist working aboard a factory ship in the Antarctic on a later voyage described seeing a deckhand lose his footing on a blubber-slicked deck and catch his legs in a coil of whale intestine as it slid overboard. By the time his mates were able to retrieve him from the water he had succumbed to hypothermia. He was buried at sea, lowered into the water with a pair of harpoons to weight down his body.

Still, whaling jobs were well-paying and glamorous by Soviet standards. Whalers got to see the world and stock up on foreign products that were prized on the black market back home, and were welcomed with parades when they returned. When a fourth factory ship, the Sovetskaya Rossiya, prepared for her maiden voyage from the remote eastern naval port of Vladivostok in 1961, the men and women who found positions onboard would have considered themselves lucky.

When the Sovetskaya Rossiya reached the western coast of Australia late that year, however, the whalers found themselves in a desert ocean. By the end of the season the ship had managed to round up only a few hundred animals, many of them calves—what the whalers called “small-sized gloves.” Harpooners on the other fleets’ catcher ships, too, accustomed to the miraculous abundance of years past, now looked upon a blank horizon. Alfred Berzin, a scientist aboard the Sovetskaya Rossiya, offered an alarmed and unequivocal summary in his seasonal report to the state fisheries ministry. “In five years of intensive whaling by first one, then two, three, and finally four fleets,” he wrote, the populations of humpback whales off the coasts of Australia and New Zealand “were so reduced in abundance that we can now say that they are completely destroyed!”

It was one of the fastest decimations of an animal population in world history—and it had happened almost entirely in secret. The Soviet Union was a party to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, a 1946 treaty that limited countries to a set quota of whales each year. By the time a ban on commercial whaling went into effect, in 1986, the Soviets had reported killing a total of 2,710 humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere. In fact, the country’s fleets had killed nearly 18 times that many, along with thousands of unreported whales of other species. It had been an elaborate and audacious deception: Soviet captains had disguised ships, tampered with scientific data, and misled international authorities for decades. In the estimation of the marine biologists Yulia Ivashchenko, Phillip Clapham, and Robert Brownell, it was “arguably one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.”

The Aleut, the Soviet Union’s oldest factory ship, works off the coast of Kamchatka in 1958. (Photo: Yulia Ivashchenko)
It was also a perplexing one. Environmental crimes are, generally speaking, the most rational of crimes. The upsides are obvious: Fortunes have been made selling contraband rhino horns and mahogany or helping toxic waste disappear, and the risks are minimal—poaching, illegal logging, and dumping are penalized only weakly in most countries, when they’re penalized at all.

The Soviet whale slaughter followed no such logic. Unlike Norway and Japan, the other major whaling nations of the era, the Soviet Union had little real demand for whale products. Once the blubber was cut away for conversion into oil, the rest of the animal, as often as not, was left in the sea to rot or was thrown into a furnace and reduced to bone meal—a low-value material used for agricultural fertilizer, made from the few animal byproducts that slaughterhouses and fish canneries can’t put to more profitable use. “It was a good product,” Dmitri Tormosov, a scientist who worked on the Soviet fleets, wryly recalls, “but maybe not so important as to support a whole whaling industry.”

This was the riddle the Soviet ships left in their wake: Why did a country with so little use for whales kill so many of them?

“It was a good product,” a scientist who worked on the Russian fleets wryly recalls, “but maybe not so important as to support a whole whaling industry.”
ONE AFTERNOON LAST APRIL, I visited Clapham and Ivashchenko at their home in Seattle, a century-old Craftsman overlooking the city’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. When I rapped the mermaid-shaped knocker, the two scientists, who are married, appeared in the doorway together, a study in opposites. Ivashchenko is a 38-year-old willowy blonde of almost translucent complexion; Clapham, a 57-year-old Englishman with the build of a bouncer and arms sleeved in Maori tattoos, looks less like a man who studies whales than one who might have harpooned them 150 years ago.

At their feet was a lanky, elderly dog named Cleo, assembled from various shepherds and wolfhounds, whose fur Ivashchenko had shaved into a Mohawk earlier that day. “We’re going to dye it red,” she said matter-of-factly, as she went into the kitchen to put on a pot of Russian caravan tea. We settled into the book-crammed dining room (on one shelf I noticed a first edition of the 1930 Rockwell Kent–illustrated Moby-Dick). At the head of the table was a mannequin, dressed in a bustier and a Carnival mask.

Ivashchenko’s and Clapham’s research, when I’d first stumbled across it, had struck me as similarly eccentric. The papers they had published over the previous decade, as co-authors and with a handful of colleagues, nearly all concerned a single, obscure historical episode: the voyages the Soviet Union’s whaling fleets made in the middle years of the 20th century. On the most basic level, it was an accounting exercise, an attempt to correct the false records the Soviets had released to the world at the time.

But it was in this space, between the false numbers and the real ones, that the researchers’ work became engrossing in ways that had little to do with marine biology. In gathering the figures, the researchers had also gathered stories that explained how the figures had come to be—the scientist who had stashed heaps of documents in his potato cellar; the whaling ship captain accused of espionage; elaborate acts of high-seas tactical misdirection and disguise usually reserved for navies in battle. The authors, I realized, were assembling not just a scientific record but also a human history, an account of a remarkable collision between political ideology and the natural world—and a lesson for anyone seeking to protect the fragile ecosystems that exist in the world’s least governed spaces.

The first time I called him, Clapham explained that the work had begun around the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, when an earlier generation of Russian scientists and their foreign colleagues began gathering the fragmented documentary records of the program. The Soviet Union had kept the records secret for years, and many had been lost; the scientists were reconstructing the numbers from files that had been left behind in obscure provincial repositories, or quietly preserved by the scientists themselves.

This was not quite what Ivashchenko had envisioned doing with her life. Growing up in Yaroslavl, a landlocked city northeast of Moscow, she pursued a career in marine biology in part because she imagined it would offer everything Yaroslavl did not: “tropics, dolphins, bikinis.” Instead, she told me, laughing, “I ended up with dusty reports.” On her laptop, she pulled up images of thousands of pages’ worth of files she had found the month before in a municipal archive in Vladivostok, the largest new cache of Soviet whaling documents anyone had discovered since the early 1990s. “We thought that all of this stuff had been shredded,” Clapham said. “There’s still some sensitivity—some of the people who did this are still around.” Instead, it turned out to be a matter of knowing where to look.

COMMERCIAL WHALING WAS BANNED just 27 years ago, but it is difficult to think of the industry as anything other than an exotic holdover from a long-receded age—to imagine anyone sailing a small armada of ships to the end of the Earth to kill an animal the size of a school bus whose flesh, to the uninitiated, would seem too gamey to eat. And yet as recently as the mid-20th century, the waters surrounding Antarctica—the most populous whale habitat on Earth, what the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton half a century earlier called “a veritable playground for these monsters”—were crowded with whaling ships not just from Norway and Japan but also Britain and the Netherlands. Farther north, Australian and New Zealander whalers, operating from shore-based stations, plied their own coastlines. There were so many of them that even in an era when marine ecosystems were poorly understood, the need for some sort of regulations became impossible to ignore.

In December 1946, representatives of the whaling nations gathered in Washington to draw up the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. “[T]he history of whaling has seen overfishing of one area after another and of one species of whale after another,” the treaty read, “to such a degree that it is essential to protect all species of whales from further overfishing.” The countries that were party to the treaty were limited to an annual quota set by the newly formed International Whaling Commission. But the science guiding the quotas was rudimentary at best, and it was only in 1960 that the IWC enlisted the help of three respected fisheries scientists to take the measure of the hunt’s impact.

One of the three scientists—the only one still living—was Sidney Holt, then working for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Reviewing the data from the British and Norwegian fleets, Holt saw quickly that the quotas the IWC had set were vastly too high; both countries’ figures showed that whalers were traveling farther and farther in search of whales whose numbers were shrinking at an ominous pace. When the researchers turned their attention to the Soviet ships’ data, however, they were surprised to find that they looked nothing like the others. “We couldn’t make sense of it at all,” Holt told me recently. “It had no pattern. We didn’t know what the hell was wrong.”

In the following years, observers noticed other differences, too. The Soviet Union had many more ships in the Antarctic than any other country, sometimes twice as many catchers for each factory ship. And they worked differently, sweeping the sea in a line like a naval blockade. Holt had met Alexei Solyanik, the captain of the Slava fleet, on several occasions, and had dined with Soviet scientists onboard the country’s research vessels. (Friends of Holt’s who were well-versed in the Soviet crews’ liberality with their ships’ vodka supplies had instructed him to fortify himself with butter before coming aboard.) But, he recalls, “It never occurred to us in the 1960s that the USSR was falsifying the submitted catch statistics.” And even though later scientists had their suspicions, they were impossible to confirm without access to the Soviets’ own records—which would remain classified until 1993, when a Russian scientist named Alexey Yablokov made a remarkable confession.

Twenty-six years earlier, Yablokov, then a prominent Soviet whale researcher, had met a young American scientist named Robert Brownell at the Moscow airport. The two men had been corresponding for years, and Yablokov urged Brownell to stop by on his way back from a research trip to Japan. For the next three days, Brownell recalls, “Yablokov took me all over, showed me the museums. I asked if I could take photos; he said, ‘Go ahead. If you’re taking pictures of something you’re not supposed to, I’ll stop you.’”

Years later, in late 1990, Brownell’s colleague Peter Best was trying to track down data on right whale fetuses. Right whales were the first whale species to come under international protection, in 1935, and Best had been able to locate records of just 13 fetus specimens. On a hunch, he thought to ask Yablokov. Replying months later, Yablokov reported that he had records of about 150 fetuses. At first, Best recalls, he thought he had misunderstood: 150 fetuses would mean that the Soviets had killed at least one or two thousand members of the most protected whale species in the world.

In fact, it turned out to be more than three thousand. Brownell arranged for Yablokov—now the science adviser to the new Russian president, Boris Yeltsin—to make his confession public, in a short speech before a marine mammalogy conference in Galveston, Texas, in 1993. The catch records the Soviets had given the IWC for decades, Yablokov told the scientists in Galveston, had been almost entirely fictitious. Exactly how wrong they were Yablokov didn’t yet know. The Soviet fisheries ministry had classified its whaling data—even doctoral dissertations based on the numbers couldn’t be made public—and as a matter of protocol had destroyed most of the original records.

Yablokov and Brownell both began piecing together the real figures with the assistance of several scientists who had worked aboard the whaling fleets. (Brownell cheekily dubbed them the Gang of Four.) In some cases, they had preserved clandestine troves of documents for decades in hopes of eventually correcting the historical record. The false figures, they knew, had informed years of thinking about whale conservation and population science. It was possible that much of what scientists outside of Russia believed they understood was wrong.

The most valuable set of records came from the scientist Dmitri Tormosov, who had been stationed aboard the factory ship Yuriy Dolgorukiy beginning in the late 1950s. Tormosov had quietly instructed his colleagues to save their individual catch records—what they called “whale passports”—instead of burning them after the record of the season had been filed, as required by the fisheries ministry. When the collection grew into the tens of thousands of pages, Tormosov moved it into his potato cellar. The records covered 15 whaling seasons, and they allowed the non-Russian scientists to grasp, for the first time, the scale of the killing. Even scientists who for years had harbored suspicions of the Soviets were stunned by the true numbers. “We had no idea it was a systematic taking of everything that was available,” Best told me. “It was amazing they got away with it for so long.”

IN NOVEMBER 1994, A letter arrived at Brownell’s office in La Jolla, California. It was addressed from Alfred Berzin, the scientist who had chronicled the disappearance of the Antarctic’s humpbacks from the deck of the Sovetskaya Rossiya. Berzin had spent his entire career at a government laboratory in Vladivostok, and sailed with several Soviet whaling fleets; he and Brownell had known each other since the 1970s. Brownell remembers that Berzin, more than the other Soviet researchers, seemed burdened by what he had seen, and what he had failed to stop. “Nobody paid any attention to him,” Brownell told me. “I think that affected him.”

Berzin had not kept the volume of records that Tormosov had, but he did seem to have an unusually vivid recollection of the day-to-day details of whaling, and Brownell had once suggested that he write down what he remembered. But they hadn’t discussed the matter further, and Brownell was surprised to find in the envelope a short summary of a memoir Berzin was preparing.

Seven months later, a package arrived from Vladivostok, containing a manuscript written in Russian and bound in a hand-drawn cover. Berzin died the next year, and Brownell, who couldn’t read Russian and didn’t have the funding to have the manuscript translated, filed it away in his desk. It was only a decade later that he thought to give it to Yulia Ivashchenko, who had worked for him in the late 1990s on a research trip in the Russian Far East.

Ivashchenko’s translation—the work remains unpublished in Russian—appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Marine Fisheries Review, a small research journal published by the U.S. Department of Commerce, under the title “The Truth About Soviet Whaling: A Memoir.” It is an uncommonly urgent document, animated by Berzin’s understanding that he had witnessed something much stranger than a simple act of industrialized killing.

The Soviet whalers, Berzin wrote, had been sent forth to kill whales for little reason other than to say they had killed them. They were motivated by an obligation to satisfy obscure line items in the five-year plans that drove the Soviet economy, which had been set with little regard for the Soviet Union’s actual demand for whale products. “Whalers knew that no matter what, the plan must be met!” Berzin wrote. The Sovetskaya Rossiya seemed to contain in microcosm everything Berzin believed to be wrong about the Soviet system: its irrationality, its brutality, its inclination toward crime.

Berzin contrasted the Soviet whalers with the Japanese, who are similarly thought to have caught whales off the books in the Antarctic (though in numbers, scientists believe, far short of the Soviets). The Japanese, motivated as they were by domestic demand for whale meat, were “at least understandable” in their actions, he wrote. “I should not say that as a scientist, but it is possible to understand the difference between a motivated and unmotivated crime.” Japanese whalers made use of 90 percent of the whales they hauled up the spillway; the Soviets, according to Berzin, used barely 30 percent. Crews would routinely return with whales that had been left to rot, “which could not be used for food. This was not regarded as a problem by anybody.”

This absurdity stemmed from an oversight deep in the bowels of the Soviet bureaucracy. Whaling, like every other industry in the Soviet Union, was governed by the dictates of the State Planning Committee of the Council of Ministers, a government organ tasked with meting out production targets. In the grand calculus of the country’s planned economy, whaling was considered a satellite of the fishing industry. This meant that the progress of the whaling fleets was measured by the same metric as the fishing fleets: gross product, principally the sheer mass of whales killed.

Whaling fleets that met or exceeded targets were rewarded handsomely, their triumphs celebrated in the Soviet press and the crews given large bonuses. But failure to meet targets came with harsh consequences. Captains would be demoted and crew members fired; reports to the fisheries ministry would sometimes identify responsible parties by name.

Soviet ships’ officers would have been familiar with the story of Aleksandr Dudnik, the captain of the Aleut, the only factory ship the Soviets owned before World War II. Dudnik was a celebrated pioneer in the Soviet whaling industry, and had received the Order of Lenin—the Communist Party’s highest honor—in 1936. The following year, however, his fleet failed to meet its production targets. When the Aleut fleet docked in Vladivostok in 1938, Dudnik was arrested by the secret police and thrown in jail, where he was interrogated on charges of being a Japanese agent. If his downfall was of a piece with the unique paranoia of the Stalin years, it was also an indelible reminder to captains in the decades that followed. As Berzin wrote, “The plan—at any price!”

Berzin recalled seeing so many spouting humpbacks that their blows reminded him of a forest. Years later, he saw only blubber-stripped carcasses bobbing on the waves.
AS THE PLAN TARGETS rose year after year, they inevitably exceeded what was allowed under the IWC quotas. This meant that the Soviet captains faced a choice: They could be persona non grata at home, or criminals abroad. The scientific report for the Sovetskaya Rossiya fleet’s 1970-71 season noted that the ship captains and harpooners who most frequently violated international whaling regulations also received the most Communist Party honors. “Lies became an inalienable part and perhaps even a foundation of Soviet whaling,” Berzin wrote.

By the mid-1960s, the situation was sufficiently dire that several scientists took the unusual risk of complaining directly to Aleksandr Ishkov, the powerful minister of fisheries resources. When one of them was called in front of Ishkov, he warned the minister that if the whaling practices didn’t change, their grandchildren would live in a world with no whales at all. “Your grandchildren?” Ishkov scoffed. “Your grandchildren aren’t the ones who can remove me from my job.”

By then, there were too few humpbacks left in the Southern Hemisphere to bother hunting, and the Soviet fleets had turned their attention northward, to other species and other oceans—in particular the North Pacific. From 1961 to 1964, Soviet catches in the North Pacific jumped from less than 4,000 whales a year to nearly 13,000. In 1965, a Soviet scientist noted that the blue whale was “commercially extinct” in the North Pacific and would soon be gone entirely. “After one more year of such intensive catches,” another researcher warned of the region’s humpbacks, “whale stocks will be so depleted that it will be impossible to continue any whaling.” Berzin, who had sailed along the Aleutian Islands to the Gulf of Alaska and back aboard the Aleut in the late 1950s, recalled seeing so many spouting humpbacks that their blows reminded him of a forest. Scanning the same horizon from the deck of the Sovetskaya Rossiya years later, he saw only blubber-stripped carcasses bobbing on the waves.

In one season alone, from 1959 to 1960, Soviet ships killed nearly 13,000 humpback whales. (Photo: Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images)
On a 1971 voyage north of Hawaii, Berzin watched a catcher vessel systematically run down a mother sperm whale and her calf, betrayed by their telltale blows—two of them, huddled close together, one large and one small. The Sovetskaya Rossiya’s crew, it seemed to him, had become ghastly parodies of the Yankee whalers of the 19th century. “Even now,” he wrote in his memoir, “I can recall seeing the bow of a catcher moving through warm blue tropical waters, and a harpooner behind the gun, dressed only in bathing trunks and with a red bandana on his head, chasing, obviously, a female with a calf. … What dignity this was….” The last was a biting reference to a passage from Moby-Dick: “The dignity of our calling,” Melville wrote, “the very heavens attest.”

In 1972, the IWC finally passed a rule that conservationists had sought for years, requiring that international observers accompany all commercial whaling vessels to independently monitor their catches. The new system proved easy enough to circumvent—the Soviets arranged to have their fleets staffed with Japanese observers who were willing to look the other way as necessary. But by that point, Berzin later recalled, the country’s illegal whaling program had reached its inevitable conclusion anyway. It ended, he wrote, “simply because we killed all the whales.”

Clapham and Ivashchenko now think that Soviet whalers killed at least 180,000 more whales than they reported between 1948 and 1973. It’s a testament to the enormous scale of legal commercial whaling that this figure constitutes only a small percentage—in some oceans, about five percent—of the total killed by whalers in the 20th century. The Soviets, Dmitri Tormosov told me, were well aware of all that had come before them, and were driven by a kind of fatalistic nationalism. “The point,” he says, “was to catch up and get their portion of whale resources before they were all gone. It wasn’t intended to be a long industry.”

But if other countries had already badly pillaged the oceans before the Slava ever sailed from Odessa, scientists now believe that the timing and frenetic pace of Soviet whaling lent it an outsized impact. The Soviets did not lead the world’s whales to the precipice—but they likely pushed the most vulnerable of them over it. Bowhead whales in the Sea of Okhotsk, which were severely depleted by 19th-century whaling, are believed to be endangered today as a result of Soviet whaling. The IWC now charges the Soviets with delaying the recovery of right whale populations in the Southern Hemisphere by 20 years. Blue whales in the North Pacific, whose population had been reduced to an estimated 1,400 by the mid-1970s, now number only between 2,000 and 3,000. The condition of the populations of sperm whales in the Pacific, of which the Soviets killed more than any other species, is still uncertain.

Grimmest is the case of the North Pacific right whale, which appears to have been all but killed off by Soviet whalers over the course of three years in the mid-1960s. “The species is now so rarely sighted in the region,” Clapham and Ivashchenko wrote in 2009, “that single observations have been publishable in scientific journals. We cannot be sure, but it is entirely possible that when the few remaining right whales in the eastern North Pacific live out their lives and die, the species will be gone forever from these waters.”

This was the riddle the Soviet ships left in their wake: Why did a country with so little use for whales kill so many of them?
STILL, THE OCEAN IS a confounding place. In 2004, scientists from 10 countries set out in research vessels across the same North Pacific latitudes the Soviets had once hunted. It was the first comprehensive effort to measure the region’s humpback whale population, which had dwindled to just 1,400 animals by the mid-1960s. The findings, published five years ago, suggested that there were just under 20,000 humpback whales alive and well in the North Pacific—more than twice the previous estimate. The Antarctic humpback population, too, is believed to have rebounded to upwards of 42,000 animals—a steady recovery, if not a complete one.

The need to save the whales has been assumed for so long now, with such urgency, that the idea of some of them actually having been saved is oddly difficult to grapple with. And it’s true that many species soon may be as threatened by the vast changes imposed upon their habitat—the overfishing and climatic transformations that stand to upend entire ocean ecosystems—as they once were by the harpoon. Still, the cloud of existential peril has lifted enough that in 2010, the IWC began considering a possibility that not long before would have been unthinkable: ending the moratorium on commercial whaling.

The whaling nations lobbying for the change have been joined, improbably, by several countries that generally oppose commercial whaling, including the United States. These supporters point to the increasing number of whales that are being killed, in spite of the moratorium, by Norway, Iceland, and Japan. (Japan categorizes its hunting of minke and endangered fin whales in the Antarctic as “scientific:” Its whaling fleet is operated by the government-funded Institute of Cetacean Research, a research institution in little more than name that also supplies whale meat to the country’s seafood markets.)

Legitimizing whaling again under a carefully supervised quota system, the thinking goes, would be preferable to the uncontrolled status quo, allowing the IWC to once again exert some influence over where and how whales are hunted. “We think the moratorium isn’t working,” Monica Medina, the U.S. representative to the IWC, told Time in 2010. “Many whales are being killed, and we want to save as many whales as possible.” In other words, better to have the whalers inside a permissive system than outside a tougher one.

History is always studied with one eye on the present, and Ivashchenko brought up this argument when we spoke about her work. The lesson of the Soviet experience, she told me in Seattle, is that “you cannot trust an individual country to control its own industry. There’s always a temptation to violate the rules, to close your eyes [to] some problems.” (And although its catches today are a fraction of those of years past, the Japanese whaling fleet has come to echo the Soviets’ in its lack of connection to the marketplace; demand for whale meat in Japan is declining, and the government loses about $10 million a year on whaling subsidies.)

It’s difficult to look at the Soviet story and see anything other than a remarkable anomaly, one that seems wildly unlikely to occur again. But in a way, this is the point: If the same international regime that exists today allowed 180,000 whales to vanish without a trace, how can anyone reasonably expect it to notice two or three thousand missing whales tomorrow?

In the last pages of his memoir, Alfred Berzin wrestled with the relevance of his story—with the question of what purpose was served, exactly, by an unsparing account of something that had happened four decades earlier. “When I started to work on this memoir,” he wrote, “some serious people asked me: ‘Do you really need it?’” In answering them, he offered a quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. “There can be no acceptable future,” Solzhenitsyn said, “without an honest analysis of the past.”

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